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THE EVE OF
The English Reformation presents a variety of problems to the student of history. Amongst them not the least difficult or important is the general question, How are we to account for the sudden beginning and the ultimate success of a movement which apparently, at least, was opposed to the religious convictions and feelings of the nation at large? To explain away the difficulty, we are asked by some writers to believe that the religious revolution, although perhaps unrecognised at the moment when the storm first burst, had long been inevitable, and indeed that its issue had been foreseen by the most learned and capable men in England. To some, it appears that the Church on the eve of the Reformation, had long lost its hold on the intelligence and affection of the English people. Discontented with the powers claimed by the ecclesiastical authority, and secretly disaffected to much of the mediaeval teaching of religious truth and to many of the traditional religious ordinances, the laity were, it is suggested, only too eager to seize upon the first opportunity of emancipating themselves from a thraldom which in practice had become intolerable. An increase of knowledge, too, it is supposed, had inevitably led men to view as false and superstitious many of the practices of religion which had been acquiesced in and followed without doubt or question in earlier and more simple days. Men, with the increasing light, had come to see, in the support given to these practices by the clergy, a determination to keep people at large in ignorance, and to make capital out of many of these objectionable features of mediaeval worship.
Moreover, such writers assume that in reality there was little or no practical religion among the mass of the people for some considerable time before the outbreak of the religious difficulties in the sixteenth century. According to their reading of the facts, the nation, as such, had long lost its interest in the religion of its forefathers. Receiving no instruction in faith and morals worthy of the name, they had been allowed by the neglect of the clergy to grow up in ignorance of the teachings, and in complete neglect of the duties, of their religion. Ecclesiastics generally, secular as well as religious, had, it is suggested, forfeited the respect and esteem of the laity by their evil and mercenary lives; whilst, imagining that the surest way to preserve the remnants of their former power was to keep the people ignorant, they had opposed the literary revival of the fifteenth century by every means at their command. In a word, the picture of the pre-Reformation Church ordinarily drawn for us is that of a system honeycombed with disaffection and unbelief, the natural and necessary outcome of an attempt to maintain at all hazards an effete ecclesiastical organisation, which clung with the tenacity of despair to doctrines and observances which the world at large had ceased to accept as true, or to observe as any part of its reasonable service.
In view of these and similar assertions, it is of interest and importance to ascertain, if possible, what really was the position of the Church in the eyes of the nation at large on the eve of the Reformation, to understand the attitude of men's minds to the system as they knew it,